Can a puzzle contest simulate an escape room?

World Puzzle Federation logoThe World Puzzle Federation‘s rolling Puzzle Grand Prix contest has its fifth round this weekend. It’s a free-to-enter online puzzle contest where you are given an hour and a half to score as many points as you can by solving paper-and-pencil puzzles. You can start at any point after 11am UK time on Friday and must conclude by 11pm UK time on Monday.

This fifth round is particularly interesting to this site because it’s being set by puzzle authors from the US who have chosen to theme some of their puzzles in the “casual” section around what they’re calling “Escape the Grand Prix”. For all intents and purposes, don’t worry about the distinction between the “casual” and “competitive” sections unless you’ve been solving every round and getting almost all the “competitive” puzzles correct; just solve whichever puzzles seem most entertaining, whichever section they’re in.

You are trapped in a room with a stack of puzzles, wondering if you’ll be able ((to)) finish all of them. Between you and the end is one Mastermind puzzle. But it seems to be in code, with twenty different letters corresponding to different digit values from 1 to 9 (e.g., X = 2 or Y = 6). Perhaps solving the other puzzles, some normal in appearance and others with some of the same code letters, will help. Not all puzzles will be useful to crack the code, but you never know where important clues will be found so search everywhere. Can you figure out what digit each letter stands for and ‘Escape the Grand Prix’ before time runs out?

Take a look at the Instruction Booklet which is a 3.3 MB .pdf file; the booklet hints at the sort of tricks it might use to secrete digits’ identities throughout and also shows you what other types of puzzles there will be on offer in the contest. The contest goes out of its way to offer puzzles in a wide range of levels of difficulty, and you know what styles of puzzles will be featured in advance so you can have a good idea whether you’ll enjoy them or not. You can even get some practice in on the types of puzzles that you know you’ll be facing in advance, if you like. The first four rounds were great fun and this one should be even more so!

Coming soon: HIQORA, the High IQ World Championships

High IQ World Championships logoThere’s an interesting and unusual-looking online puzzle contest happening on Saturday 28th May: the first round of the 2016 edition of HIQORA, the High IQ World Championships. It has an interesting structure: there will be two online rounds, with the top scorers from the first advancing to the second and the top 12 scorers from the second winning flights to, and accommodation for, the live world final in San Diego. (No clue if there’s any prize other than the trip and the title, but that’s easily good enough alone.) The first round is set to start at 4pm UK time on Saturday 28th May, and will be held simultaneously around the world, so it starts at 8am in San Francisco, 11am in New York, 6pm in Moscow and so on. (The web site suggests that it starts at 8pm in Beijing, but this may be a typo.) Can’t help feeling that this is even more of an advantage to people operating on European time already, and it does seem a shame that there won’t be many people who get to start at 1pm, 2pm or 3pm, but any time is bound to inconvenience some more than others.

The duration of the first round is yet to be confirmed. “The two Online Rounds will each be up to four hours in length, and held simultaneously around the world. Activities and questions are drawn from the HIQORA Championship Framework which explores multi-disciplinary aspects of high intelligence. Examples of these activities and questions may include: learning to play a new board game; interpreting complex literature and language passages; interactive case studies; mathematics and graphical workouts; spelling bees; memory workouts; knowledge of geographical facts and figures; and various exercises across science, technology, education and maths (STEM).

You may be given the rules to a new board game, or other pre-reading, 72 hours in advance and thus a relatively limited time to master it. That sounds like rather a fun sort of challenge. It’s tempting to wonder whether or not the championships will attempt to be culture-neutral. The signs would seem to point to that not being a top priority, and (at the risk of an interpretation, which this site would love to learn is incorrect) might seem to imply a focus on English language culture. On the other hand, this would appear to be only a small part of the focus of the overall test.

One comment in the FAQ is particularly striking: “(…) it’s important to note that HIQORA is a test of natural intelligence, so study as such is of lesser importance to success in the competition than natural abilities.” This site tends to believe that puzzle contests covered by this site generally tend not to go out of their way to make that sort of distinction, and this is the point at which it’s tempting to get a little cynical about the extent to which a contest truly could separate natural abilities from facility at, and familiarity with, IQ test puzzles. Had this been clearly marketed as, say, “an IQ puzzle championship” then this site would have embraced it with open arms. On the other hand, the wide variety of components to the challenge mean that it seems to be intended to be more than just an IQ puzzle championship. That’s fair enough and probably makes for a more interesting event, but can something culture-specific really be a fair test of natural abilities to people around the world for a true world championship?

By way of full disclosure, I’ve never taken a formal IQ test and Mensa has never seemed appealing to me. That said, the Mensa members I’ve met in person have been thoroughly convivial to a (non-gender-specific) man; when I was taken as a guest by a Mensa member to a Mensa meeting – for that is perfectly possible – I enjoyed my evening there. While I tend to be leery at best when it comes to exclusivity being sold as an inherent virtue, I am thoroughly supportive of the necessarily elitist World Puzzle Championships as adding to the jollity of the world, though much of my favourable opinion comes from the context of the WPF’s outreach and accessibility of its qualification and Grand Prix events.

Whether the trimmings and trappings of the contest appeal, you’ll know whether or not it looks like a fun way to you to spend a few hours. At worst, it would appear to have a lot in common with the sorts of contests and challenges that this site enjoys. While the inflexible timescale may hinder – for instance, I’ll be between night shifts – it’s far from the only contest to have specified a particular timeslot in an attempt to avoid some people getting to see the questions before others. While nominally some people are charged US$40 for participation, several sources online quote HIQORAHighIQ as a code for free entry.

If you take part, this site wishes you well – and please come back and tell us all about it!

Puzzle competitions coming up soon

Selsdon Park HotelThere are exciting puzzle competitions coming up soon, both in person and online. The online contests take place this weekend, the in-person ones next weekend. The online contests are free to enter and you can do so at a time and place of your own choosing; the in-person contest has a specific time and location and fees must be charged to cover the cost of booking it.

The second round of the World Puzzle Federation‘s Puzzle Grand Prix series takes place this weekend. It’s a 90-minute contest, which you can start as soon as 10am on Friday 19th February but which you must complete by 10pm on Monday 22nd February, so you have half a week in which to pick your 90-minute window. (Those times are the ones quoted in theory, the ones in practice may be an hour later.) This set of puzzles has been devised by the Slovak team. As with the previous round, the puzzles have been divided into Casual and Competitive sections, with the Competitive section more traditional constraint-based grid puzzles and the Casual section slightly more freeform, though not necessarily easier. Log in to the GP series web site then download the instruction booklet to find out the types of puzzles in advance, then plan your attack.

If you prefer Sudoku, though, then Logic Masters India have a contest for you this weekend where the puzzles have been devised by Belfast’s David McNeill, the over-50 World Sudoku Champion – and over-50 World Sudoku Champion, too! David has been a mainstay of the UK puzzle scene for well over a decade and is a very experienced puzzle setter, so this promises to be a treat. This weekend’s contest is called Triplets and Triangles; it too is a 90-minute contest, available between Saturday 20th February and Monday 22nd February at times to be confirmed. The contest has 14 puzzles, starting with classic 9×9 sudoku, running through some variants themed as the title of the contest suggests, and ending up with some brand new puzzles that seem to combine two other variants into a single new challenge.

In person, the UK Puzzle Association are running the UK Open tournaments in sudoku and puzzles on 27th and 28th February at the Selsdon Park Hotel near Croydon, pictured above; increasingly this has become the home of puzzles in this country, most famously for being the site at which the UK held the World Championships in 2014. Again the instruction booklets have been posted; most notable is Bram de Laat’s second round, “Two to Five”, with sixteen different puzzles in four general styles: room placement puzzles, split wall puzzles, division/dissection puzzles and number puzzles. In each of those four styles, there’s a puzzle that relies on two-themed properties (pairs of cells, sets of two adjacent rooms, dominoes with two digits and so on…), a puzzle themed around threes, a puzzle themed around fours and a puzzle themed around fives. Delightful design! The event is always highly convivial so do take a look and see if it’s your sort of fun.

Grand Prix season is GO!

WPF Grands Prix logoAs hinted at yesterday, the red lights have gone out and the first leg of the Puzzle Grand Prix season promoted by the World Puzzle Federation is now in progress. If you’re sufficiently interested in puzzles to be reading this site, even if you think you only like exit games and have never taken the time to enter a puzzle contest before, you should get excited about this season and think seriously about taking part. The puzzles are fun and there’s no charge for taking part.

The name Grand Prix is an allusion to the tradition of motor races, for there are a series of rounds set by teams of setters from different countries; for instance, this is the Indian round, the next one is the Slovakian round and so on. (There are eight rounds in the competition, each four weeks apart, and your overall score is the sum of your six best round scores.) Each round is available for 3½ days, from 11am UK time on Friday to 11pm UK time on Monday. During that 84-hour window, you can press the “start the timer” button at a point of your choice and then have 1½ hours to score as many points as you can by submitting answers to the puzzles from that round.

The types of puzzles are introduced a couple of days beforehand in an instruction booklet. The big distinction between this year’s contest and that of previous years has been an addition to the types of puzzles that are featured in the contest. Specifically, this year, each round will feature “competitive puzzles” and also “casual puzzles”. Competitive puzzles tend to be grid-based constraint-satisfaction puzzles where, as the name suggests, “the objective is to fill in information on cells in a grid, based on logic or numerical constraints“. The typical form is that there will be 6-8 types of puzzles per round, and usually 3-4 of each of those puzzles; usually the levels of difficulty will vary, but the baseline is pretty tough. However, as you know what sorts of puzzles are on offer in advance, you can get some practice in advance and see if you enjoy solving them.

Specifically, this time round, the competitive puzzle types are Four Winds, Spiral Galaxies (see half-way down the page), Nurikabe, Skyscrapers, Slitherlink, Place by Product and a variant of the Tapa genre. It is expected that the best solvers in the world will be able to finish all 22 of these puzzles with a little time left over.

However, the “casual puzzles” are an innovation by this year’s Puzzle Grand Prix director, four-time World Puzzle Champion and (as personally certified) Generally Smashing Bloke Wei-Hwa Huang. Wei-Hwa writes: “If the WPC is going to be like the Olympics of puzzle-solving, I think this ((the focus on grid-based Constraint Satisfaction puzzles)) is the equivalent of having only one area of Olympic events, maybe Track & Field, and slowly removing all other Olympic events year after year. I find this very sad. I would like to reverse this trend and add a ‘casual’ puzzle section to the Puzzle GP. The puzzles in this section are explicitly allowed to be non-culture-neutral; the main requirement is that the puzzles here be easily understandable and considered fun by most solvers.

He suggests that sorts of puzzles that might feature could include:

  • observation puzzles (find the differences, find pairs)
  • word (or non-word) searches
  • arithmetic puzzles
  • counting puzzles
  • next-in-sequence puzzles
  • brainteasers
  • jigsaw puzzles
  • manipulation/mechanical puzzles
  • logic puzzles (“who owns the zebra?” types)
  • crosswords and variants
  • logistical/operational puzzles
  • insight puzzles (such as seen in an escape room or a puzzle hunt)

…and you can find examples of some of these types at his sample casual puzzles page. In practice, the casual puzzles in this first round are fill in the blank sequences, “Lights Out” puzzles, counting puzzles, arithmetic puzzles, word searches and Battleships puzzles. They won’t be easy, but they may be accessible to more people than the competitive puzzles. (That said, this round’s competitive puzzles are far from the most obscure genres and there are plenty of examples available for almost all of them, so it’s a relatively accessible round all the way through.)

This site commends the decision to add these extra puzzles, looks forward to taking part if time permits (for today is an anniversary and tomorrow is a travel day…) and would recommend the series to all readers. The more people who can find their style and level of competitive puzzling fun, the merrier!

The 2016 MIT Mystery Hunt is in progress

"MIT Mystery Hunt" Indian head pennyThe 2016 edition of the annual MIT Mystery Hunt started at 2pm yesterday, based in and around that famous university, associated with Boston in the USA.

A quick summary is that it’s, arguably, the world’s most extreme open-participation puzzle hunt; a low-four-digit-number of players form a few dozen teams (of maybe as few as five players or as many as 125) and spend up to, perhaps, two-and-a-bit days solving puzzles non-stop, taking as little sleep as they dare. There is no limit to the difficulty of puzzles; many of the world’s very best solvers take part, and many of the puzzles are written with this in mind. It’s a practical assumption that most teams will be able to directly or indirectly be able to contact a postdoctorate academic in virtually every subject under the sun, high-brow or low-brow, whether in person or online. For a longer description of the hunt, see last year’s article on the topic, complete with links to write-ups of what it feels like to participate and to some of the most spectacular puzzles.

The hunt does aim to offer such a variety of not just puzzles but also other activities in order to give as many people as possible the chance to join in the fun and contribute whatever their special expertise is. It’s practically guaranteed that there will be several puzzles which will get people out and about (example), there’s very likely to be a twisted variant on a scavenger hunt (example), and it’s virtually traditional for there to be a “bring some food to the team running the hunt” puzzle – with the gimmick that the larger the team, the more elaborate the requirement for the meal to be supplied (example). There are also live events as part of the hunt, with this year’s “Escape from Mars” event sounding rather like it might be relevant to this site’s interests.

If you aspire to play all in the world’s most remarkable puzzle challenges, the MIT Mystery Hunt is one for your bucket list. Being there in person for it must surely be spectacular, though helping a team remotely is the next best thing. (This site is aware of suggestion of at least one remote cell of solvers in London, and believes there may be cells – or at least individual solvers – in at least Cambridge and Manchester.) For the rest of us – and this site knows, the hard way, that the event is out of its league! – then the puzzles and their answers are usually released fairly soon after the event finishes, so that everyone may enjoy and admire their incredible design and artifice.

On the other hand, if the MIT Mystery Hunt isn’t out of your league, why not consider attending the UK Open Puzzle tournament next month? UK solvers can qualify for the country’s team at the World Puzzle Championship!

Will Cicada3301 pierce the world’s skin this year?

Cicada3301 relief imageLong-time reader and puzzle author David J. Bodycombe mentioned Cicada3301 to this site a while ago. This was a source of puzzling entertainment for the world from 5th January 2012 onwards, with further trails of puzzles being launched on 5th January 2013 and 5th January 2014. (Not on 5th January 2015, though, but arguably some loose ends remain from 2014.) Some sources quote 4th January as the crucial date in each of those years, depending on the timezones; in any case, you can imagine why today is an opportune time for this site to bring the topic up.

The Cicada3301 content could be characterised as a series of messages, many of which had hidden content, often ciphers encrypted with steganographic techniques. Famously, at one point, a list of pairs of co-ordinates were revealed pointing to the locations of 14 posters that had been stealthily erected about the continents of the world. People tended to treat the investigation process at least mostly co-operatively, in a fashion akin to the way people play Alternate Reality Games, with no obvious prize for those who made it all the way through.

There are a few different places to look for further information about the Cicada3301 phenomenon. An article in Rolling Stone focuses on the experience of some of those who delved most deeply into the first round of puzzles, and what happened as a consequence. The US National Public Radio service ran a piece, too. To get a full run-through of the solving process, the Wikia site is probably about as comprehensive as it gets; the phenomenon is discussed online at, gasp, 4chan, but the subreddit also seems pretty well-informed.

Now the world must wait and see whether there’s anything new for it in this regard for 2016!

Some after-dinner fun

Winter scene with a snowmanWhether you have elaborate plans for your lunch or not, there are a few fun things you can do today between the main meal of the day and the last episode of Downton Abbey.

If you live near Preston, or even if you’re just visiting, you can get your exit game fix today at The Escape Room, who are open for business today as they are every other day. Hardcore! Are there any other sites out there who aren’t taking the day off? Will there be enough demand to make opening worthwhile? It’ll be interesting to see.

If Preston is too far to travel at little notice, there are alternatives where puzzles come to you. Dr. Bob Schaffer is running another online Holiday Puzzle Hunt. This is the fourth in the series; previous years’ hunts have been deliberately genuinely accessible and beginner-friendly yet thematic and imaginative. Experienced solvers will probably sprint through the three puzzles and the meta in a very few tens of minutes, but legitimate family fun to be enjoyed.

For a bigger challenge, East Anglia’s mobile pop-up Puzzle Room have put on a virtual Armchair Treasure Hunt to be enjoyed over the next two weeks. Thirteen cryptic questions hint at locations within East Anglia, letters of which can be extracted to reveal the location of the virtual treasure. One submitter of a correct answer will win a voucher for a team to play at the Puzzle Room in 2016; if you’re far from East Anglia and have no plans to visit, perhaps you can still enjoy the puzzles while taking part hors conours.

One more discount that arrived too late to make the previous post: Exit Games Scotland pointed to The Room of Glasgow’s deals page which has a code for a third off when you book before the end of the year to play before the middle of Feburary 2016.

Whatever you’re up to today, enjoy yourselves!

Hunting for news

"Puzzle Hunt" and a basket of plastic eggsTime for a round-up of puzzle hunts and related events, both in-person and online:

  • Which to start with, in-person or online? How about both! Breakout Manchester recently posted on their Twitter account that they will be giving away free games at some point in the next day or two to locals who can follow the clues that they post and, presumably, hot-foot it to the clued location. The hashtag #BreakoutBounty may also tell more. Exciting times, especially if you’re in town!
  • Firmly in person, London sees An Appetite for Murder by A Door In A Wall run through October and its shoulders. Several of the sessions are sold out already, particularly at weekends, and many of the others cannot have far to go. This site had the good fortune to get to meet the company’s founder Tom Williams at Now Play This recently and talk hunts and now is even more excited about ADIAW‘s work. If you get the chance to get to play their The Long and the Short of it trading game, it’s highly recommended.
  • Elsewhere in London, Treasure Hunts in London have games coming up as usual, with the next game on the roster being a Trick or Treat hunt around the British Museum. This happens on Hallowe’en weekend, as the name suggests; there are two runs of a version suitable for teenagers on Friday 30th October and the main event on the afternoon of Saturday 31st.
  • Over in France, escapegame.paris points to a “giant live escape” in Paris, a free event being run eight times between Wednesday 23rd October and Saturday 26th October. It’s being run by Team Break, which has rooms in Paris, Lille and Lyon where your team is sent by an agency to combat supervillains. Cool!
  • Online, thanks to escaping.sg for pointing out that while the CiSRA puzzle hunt is sadly no more, some of the people behind will be continuing to run online hunts in the first half of the year, starting from 2016, associated with the mezzacotta web comics. Looking forward to it in the fullness of time.
  • If you can’t wait that long for an online puzzle hunt, online quiz site Sporcle have just started running the Sporcle Intelligence Agency puzzle hunt, running over the next fortnight or so. This isn’t the first they’ve run; their first one was a couple of years ago.

Phew… and those are just the ones that the site can definitely talk about, too!

This weekend

Red "Coming Soon!" ink stampThree very interesting and rather varied events coming up this weekend. It’s an exciting time!

1) The Intervirals blog reminds the world that Friday 4th September sees the first known Escape Games Convention taking place in Stuttgart, Germany. After a welcome dinner tomorrow night, the day features workshops, speeches and networking. Tickets are still available, and if you want to learn a load of best practice in the course of a single day then there’s no better way to do so; the rest of the world can follow the action remotely via the Twitter hashtag #EGC15 ((UPDATED, 04/09/15)) and Intervirals has already done much of the hard work for the rest of us. Looking forward to following the action!

2) In London, there’s a very exciting-looking event called Now Play This happening on Friday 4th, Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th September, at Somerset House’s New Wing.

Over the weekend we’ll be home to dozens of games and playful activities of all descriptions – from a wooden pinball machine to a soundscape in a tent; from unreleased video games to a papercraft workshop. ((…)) On Friday we have a special focus on game design – come along for a first glimpse at some upcoming games, and join us for lightning talks from designers and players throughout the afternoon. On Saturday it’s all about playing, with a packed schedule of games set alongside the exhibition. And Sunday is a day of experimentation, with a showcase of strange interfaces in the morning and workshops all afternoon long.

Tickets are available from the Somerset House website, at £5 for a morning or afternoon ticket for a particular day, or £12 to return as often as you like across the weekend. Families are welcome, though not all games are suitable for children.” One of the attractions will be Pint-Sized Puzzles to pick up and play at your leisure – to be fair, it’s not the biggest or most original attraction in the world, but something to tickle if you were going to be there already – and I shall be available to give hints at lunchtime on Saturday. Do say “Hi!”

3) If you prefer your puzzles a little more competitive, then this weekend sees the annual online US Puzzle Championship, which runs (with no charge for participation) from 6pm to 8:30pm, UK time, on Saturday 5th September. You’ll have two and a half hours to score as many points as you can by solving an assortment of logical, word and picture puzzles, probably with slightly more to choose from than even the best puzzler in the world could solve within the time limit. On Friday, you’ll be able to download the preview instructions and find out what sorts of puzzles will be available for you to face this year, so that you might form your plan of attack. The puzzles vary in difficulty but the test is intended to select some of the US team for the World Puzzle Championship, so they are very much in line with the levels of difficulty you get at the Big Dance. Always a hard test, but always a great test!

UK Puzzle Championship 2015: the stats

Latest UK Puzzle Association logoFour weeks ago, this site previewed the UK Puzzle Championship taking place that weekend. The results have been published and this site congratulates everyone who is happy with their result.

The biggest congratulations of all go to James McGowan, the 2015 (and, overall, four-time!) UK champion; the UK podium exactly matched the one from the previous year, with all three performances proving extremely competitive in global terms. The number of UK participants on the scoreboard was a little down, from 20, 22, 23 and 25 in recent years to 20 this year. Good to see four first-timers taking part this year; the slight drop in numbers might be attributed to some of the regulars having to miss a year. (We’re down to six ever-presents now…)

In fact, we can continue to update a year-on-year chart of UKPC performances, in the style of Tim Peeters’ charts:

 201120122013 20142015BestTimes
James McGowan1121115
Neil Zussman 212214
David McNeill23   22
Tom Collyer8643335
Steve Barge3 35 33
Michael Collins9469745
Emma McCaughan610811445
Thomas Powell 1257444
Adam Dewbery 13 4 42
Ronald4    41
Roderick Grafton1251010955
Paul Redman5    51
Nick Gardner 106  62
Adam Bissett  136 62
Saul Glasman    661
Nick Deller107 151174
Eva Myers147 161274
Mark Goodliffe7 13131574
AJ Moore  971973
Ben Neumann    881
Chris M. Dickson1018192217105
Paul Slater   1310102
Gareth Moore16 11 13112
Chris Nash  11  111
Heather Golding   12 121
tom123513    131
Anthea McMillan  151714143
Liane Robinson1514   142
Timothy Luffingham 14   141
Kenneth Wilshire18201621 164
Robin Walters 1718 16163
Sam Boden 161719 163
Abigial See17    171
Alison Scott   18 181
Chris Harrison    18181
blueingreen19    191
quixote 19   191
Andrew Brown20 21  202
Laurence May 20   201
United Kingdom  20  201
David Cook   20 201
Jonathan Wilson    20201
Eilidh McKemmie 22   221
Gary Male  22  221
River Edis-Smith  23  231
Daniel Cohen   23 231
Abdul Hadi Khan   24 241
shirehorse1   25 251

Errors and omissions excepted and corrections are welcome; note that this site declines to split places between players on equal scores on the “time left” tie-breaker. Many thanks to everyone who has been involved with setting the puzzles or organising the contest over the years, especially serial compiler Liane Robinson.

There’s one online puzzle contest taking place this weekend: the eighth and final round of the World Puzzle Federation’s Sudoku Grand Prix. The instruction booklet for the 1½-hour round is available – coincidentally, also set by UK organisers! – and the puzzles will be available to solve until Monday evening.